How The Reboot of James Bond Resolved A Lot of My Problems With The Franchise
And Why Daniel Craig Will Always Be My Favorite Bond
At this point in the history of television and movies, the definition of the term ‘reboot’ has been completely contorted beyond its original concept, particularly on television. The term now essentially is a catch-all phrase that can cover ‘revival’ (as shows like The Connors and Night Court are), a ‘reimagining’ (as Greg Berlanti’s versions of the Arrow-verse were for the CW) and what now essentially is just variations on recasting (as basically the new plans for the DC universe seem to be) By this point the term itself has lost so much meaning that’s it pretty clear we lost the feeling of just how radical it was when it happened in the 2000s — and the life it breathed into franchises that had gone stale.
It is generally considered the first real reboot of consequence is Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, which essentially brought the story of Batman into the modern era and reimagined everything the previous movies had failed at. We spent the first half of the movie learning the backstory of Bruce Wayne in a way none of the previous films had done so, we saw the origins of how he came back to Gotham City and why he chose to became Batman, and perhaps just as importantly, the series showed a similar origin story of many of the characters that were part of the Batman universe, mostly notable Jim Gordon, the Commissioner in the original comics, who was just a sergeant at the beginning of the movie. Everything that was put under the world of the fantastic was given a place in contemporary America (which none of the previous movies or shows had ever attempted) and you got the feeling that everything was basically at the beginning. Batman Begins was a huge box office success in 2005, but perhaps more importantly it was a huge critical success: critics who had never liked a comic book found value in not merely the technical aspects but also the power of the performances and the writing, which was heresy in 2005 (and sadly is still pretty much the case today.)
I don’t know if the decision to do a similar reboot with James Bond had been made before the success of Batman Begins but it may have helped the film get greenlit. It also helped that the expectations for the next Bond film were so low after Die Another Day that anything probably would have been seen as an improvement. Then again, I’m not entirely convinced of that. In the midst of a mostly favorable review for the 2004 film Layer Cake, a British action film with Daniel Craig as the lead, Roger Ebert referred to the rumors that Craig was about to be tapped as Bond in a sad way: “Who would wish James Bond on anyone?” Two years later when Casino Royale debuted in theaters, Ebert would be among the first who admitted how wrong he was.
Casino Royale, for the uninitiated, was the first Bond book that Ian Fleming had written in 1957. There had been a British Television adaptation of it and a satiric version of it that come out in 1968 (David Niven had played Bond) but neither took it seriously. To be clear, there is no real resemblance between the plot of the book and the film. The most important aspects of the choice are simple: because it was the first Bond book, the writers (who included Neal Purvis, who had key roles in all of the Craig adaptations that were to follow) could claim justification for effectively starting the franchise over, and because Fleming’s initial description of Bond in that book effectively refer to him as a blunt instrument, the writers felt that they could start from scratch. And they made it very clear the kind of Bond we were going to meet in the very first minutes.
The opening sequence of Casino Royale is considered by many critics as one of the greatest openings in film history. This might be considered hyperbole, but its not without merit in my opinion. The film opens in black and white, with an MI-6 Section Chief running into Bond, who is confronting him on selling state secrets. The Section Chief is unconcerned because: “If M was really worried, she’d have sent a Double 00. You have no kills. It takes…” “Two,” Bond says.
We then see a brutal fight in a men’s room where Bond is engaged in a brutal brawl. We cut back to the present.
“Shame. We’d hardly gotten to know each other.” The head takes out the gun and pulls the trigger, only to hear clicks.
“I know where you keep your gun” Bond says holding up the clip. “That’s something.”
Eerily calm, the doomed man asks: “How’d he die?”
“Your contact,” Bond says just as clearly. “Not well.”
We then watch Bond essentially drown the man in the sink, basically choking the life out of him.
“Made you feel it did he,” the section chief says calmly. “Well, you needn’t worry. The second…”
Bond pulls his gun and shoots him. “Yes,” he says just as calmly. “Considerably.”
Back to the bathroom. Bond is panting, clearly in distress. The contact gasps and reaches for his gun. Bond whirls around, and fires at him.
Now for the last forty years every Bond movie had opened with an iris following whichever Bond it was, him whirling around and firing at us, and the screen would go red with blood. For forty years, the viewer had basically laughed it off as a joke that they were in on. With this opening sequence, the writers made two things noticeably clear: the audience had been let in on the truth of what Bond was doing every time, and that we couldn’t just laugh it off anymore. Even more importantly, we now got a very clear picture of what this would be for the kind of Bond that Daniel Craig would be played from pretty much the beginning to the end of his run.
The setting of this tone was clear from the beginning of this film to the end, which is at least one of the reasons its ranks not just highly among Bond afficionados, but the critics of the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and made it very clear this was the Bond film that he’d been looking for all this time and what all the others had been missing. Ebert’s opinion does matter as I’m not sure what he truly thought of Bond before this. In his second book of Great Movies, he ranks Goldfinger as one such film, but throughout his review you get the feeling this is fundamentally a requirement he thinks he has to make because he can not ignore the significance of James Bond. He admits how great Connery is as Bond, but beyond that he is very clear about the fundamental flaws in so many of the aspects of the film and makes it very clear that it is more important because of Bond’s legacy more than anything else. It’s worth noting that book came out the year before Casino Royale. He would not go so far as to say Craig was the best Bond ever (even then, he refused to dismantle Connery’s legacy) but he was truly clear about how real Craig was as Bond, and just how much he felt everything about him. The film ends in Venice in the midst of a brutal fight scene and Ebert ends his review by saying: “at this point, it goes without saying, if you cut him (Bond) he bleeds.” It would have been heresy to use a Shakesperean elusion to any Bond, even Connery. In the case of Craig, I think it’s worth saying.
In this case, it also helps that something that should be a key flaw in Casino Royale actually helps it in this movie and going forward — the fact that Judi Dench, who had been playing M since Goldeneye was still playing this version in the film. By any normal standard, this shouldn’t have worked as it would have been a flashing red light that this was business as usual. But to the immense credit of Dench and the writers, the filmmakers essentially kept her in but basically rebooted her as well. And Dench had the good sense to change her style between the films. Her attitude towards Brosnan’s Bond has been essentially that of a maternal figure trying to make things work for her trouble-making son. From the moment we meet her in Casino Royale, that impression is gone when she learns what her newly promoted 00 has done. “Anyone who committed such an offense would have the good sense to defect.”
Bond then shows up in her apartment and his attitude in their first meeting basically foreshadows there entire relationship. To Dench, Bond has started on his worst foot forward and always be the troublemaker: “I knew it was a mistake to promote you,” she says in one of their first exchanges. Craig makes the kind of joke that you don’t think any Bond before him would: “Well, I understand 00’s have a short lifespan.” You could read this as an in-joke to how Bond’s keep shifting over time. It’s just as easy to read it as how this Bond will view the world, fatalistic and with every death he issues taking it out of him.
It helps matters that the situation that is unfolding in Casino Royale does strike a lot more realistic than the ones we had to deal with in the Brosnan era and before: Bond is trying to deal with terrorism, but with a private banker who is funding them. This requires him to go to Montenegro with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).
Lynd isn’t the typical Bond girl. Her banters have the marks of insults more than anything and she uses her insight to start probing into Bond’s background in a way no film before had. Like many of the Bond girls that would follow, Vesper has a mind of her own. She is also in a sense double-dealing, but at this point in his career, Bond is not yet world-weary enough to know the game she is playing. When the action in the movie seems to end with half an hour still to go, Bond actually types up his letter of resignation and seems determined to move on to a happy ending, something that hadn’t even been remotely suggested since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. When M calls him before he sends it in with the news of Vesper’s betrayal, he has the ability to cover it up. In the final major fight sequence (which is actually in Venice for a reason), there have been very few moments in Bond films to that point where you actually saw pain on his face when someone died. Bond’s attitude immediately afterward is seen as just how brutal he is in life; I’ve always read it as someone whose heart has been broken and has decided that he will never trust anyone again. Even so, it’s worth noting that his next actions are to go on a course of revenge that goes so far as into the next movie. When he says the iconic line: “Bond. James Bond” as the last words of the film — something Craig says far less than any other Bond — it’s crucial that he is saying it to a man he is about to kill.
Some have complained about Craig’s Bond as being humorless, unemotional and cold. I’d argue those are virtues. Honestly, the one liners previous Bonds would say before dispatching a henchman or villain in the previous films were among the weakest part of any Bond movie: in my opinion, it seemed a guy making us forget the murder he’d committed by making what amount to a dad joke. Craig, however, wore his emotions far closer to the surface than any other Bond had before. In both Casino Royale and most of the other films he did, you got a sense of true pain in him that none of the other Bonds had even hinted existed. I even get this sense from Quantum of Solace, generally considered the worst of the five Bond films Craig ended up doing. Perhaps the plot is not as strong as so many of the others (though honestly how many people had watched Bond movies to that date for the plot is an open question) but you get an incredibly good sense of just how much Vesper’s death has hit Bond and how determined he is to bring vengeance upon the people responsible. There’s a recklessness to his behavior that you don’t see in any Bond film, and it makes it clear just how human this Bond is in a way none of the others had tried to be.
I even think that Craig began to dislike the role of Bond early and to be dragged back kicking and screaming with each subsequent film actually helps his performance. Every actor who’d played Bond on multiple occasions seemed utterly unaffected from one film in their roster to the next. This might have been understandable in transitions between Bonds, but less so for Bonds who played them film after film. All of the violence they were witnessing and carrying out seemed to leave them utterly immune. Craig was the exception because with each subsequent film you could see his patience getting continuously thinner, more reluctant to go back to work, constantly questioning every choice that led him to this point. How much of that was Craig’s own reluctance may never be known but it definitely was there and it could only help the franchise.
I didn’t agree with every choice the writers behind the Craig films made for Bond: I’m not really convinced their decision to link all of the villains together in Spectre was a decision that paid dividends. But I am certain that all of the Bond films that Craig made are the high point of the franchise, and that the third film Craig made has a legitimate case not only for being the best Bond film ever made, but one of the best films of the 2010s. I will discuss it when I begin my series on the great films of 2012 later this month. In other words, James Bond will return.